The Great Conspiracy

Some twenty-five miles from Alexandria, a short railroad-feeder–which
runs from Strasburg, in the Shenandoah Valley, through the Blue Ridge,
at Manassas Gap, in an East-South-easterly direction–strikes the
Alexandria and Orange railroad. The point of contact is Manassas
Junction; and it is along this Manassas-Gap feeder that Johnston, with
his Army at Winchester–some twenty miles North-North-East of Strasburg-
expects, in case of attack by Patterson, to be re-enforced by
Beauregard; or, in case the latter is assailed, to go to his assistance,
after shaking off Patterson.

This little link of railroad, known as the Manassas Gap railroad, is
therefore an important factor in the game of War, now commencing in
earnest; and it had, as we shall see, very much to do, not only with the
advance of McDowell’s Union Army upon Bull Run, but also with the result
of the first pitched battle thereabout fought.

From Alexandria, some twelve miles to the Westward, runs a fine turnpike
road to Fairfax Court-House; thence, continuing Westward, but gradually
and slightly dipping award the South, it passes through Germantown,
Centreville, and Groveton, to Warrenton.

This “Warrenton Pike”–as it is termed–also plays a somewhat
conspicuous part, before, during, and after the Battle of Bull Run. For
most of its length, from Fairfax Court-House to Warrenton, the Warrenton
Pike pursues a course almost parallel with the Orange and Alexandria
railroad aforesaid, while the stream of Bull Run, pursuing a South-
easterly course, has a general direction almost parallel with that of
the Manassas Gap railroad.

We shall find that it is the diamond-shaped parallelogram, formed by the
obtuse angle junction of the two railroads on the South, and the
similarly obtuse-angled crossing of the stream of Bull Run by the
Warrenton Pike on the North, that is destined to become the historic
battle-field of the first “Bull Run,” or “Manassas;” and it is in the
Northern obtuse-angle of this parallelogram that the main fighting is
done, upon a spot not much more than one mile square, three sides of the
same being bounded respectively by the Bull Run stream, the Warrenton
Pike, which crosses it on a stone bridge, and the Sudley Springs road,
which crosses the Pike, at right-angles to it, near a stone house.

On the 3rd of June, 1861, General McDowell, in command of the Department
of North-Eastern Virginia, with head-quarters at Arlington, near
Washington, receives from Colonel Townsend, Assistant Adjutant-General
with Lieutenant-General Scott–who is in Chief command of all the Union
Forces, with Headquarters at Washington–a brief but pregnant
communication, the body of which runs thus: “General Scott desires you
to submit an estimate of the number and composition of a column to be
pushed toward Manassas Junction, and perhaps the Gap, say in four or
five days, to favor Patterson’s attack on Harper’s Ferry. The rumor is
that Arlington Heights will be attacked to-night.”

In response to this request, General McDowell submits, on the day
following, an estimate that “the actual entire force at the head of the
column should, for the purpose of carrying the position at Manassas and
of occupying both the road to Culpepper, and the one to the Gap, be as
much as 12,000 Infantry, two batteries of regular Artillery, and from
six to eight companies of Cavalry, with an available reserve, ready to
move forward from Alexandria by rail, of 5,000 Infantry and one heavy
field battery, rifled if possible; these numbers to be increased or
diminished as events may indicate.” This force of raw troops he
proposes to organize into field brigades under the command of “active
and experienced colonels” of the regular Army. And while giving this
estimate as to the number of troops necessary, he suggestively adds that
“in proportion to the numbers used will be the lives saved; and as we
have such numbers pressing to be allowed to serve, might it not be well
to overwhelm and conquer as much by the show of force as by the use of
it?”

Subsequently McDowell presents to General Scott, and Mr. Lincoln’s
Cabinet, a project of advance and attack, which is duly approved and
ordered to be put in execution. In that project or plan of operations,
submitted by verbal request of General Scott, near the end of June,–the
success of which is made contingent upon Patterson’s holding Johnston
engaged at Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley, and also upon Butler’s
holding the Rebel force near Fortress Monroe from coming to Beauregard’s
aid at Manassas Junction,–McDowell estimates Beauregard’s strength at
25,000, with a possible increase, bringing it up to 35,000 men. The
objective point in McDowell’s plan, is Manassas Junction, and he
proposes “to move against Manassas with a force of 30,000 of all arms,
organized into three columns, with a reserve of 10,000.”

McDowell is fully aware that the Enemy has “batteries in position at
several places in his front, and defensive works on Bull Run, and
Manassas Junction.” These batteries he proposes to turn. He believes
Bull Run to be “fordable at almost anyplace,”–an error which ultimately
renders his plan abortive,–and his proposition is, after uniting his
columns on the Eastern side of Bull Run, “to attack the main position by
turning it, if possible, so as to cut off communications by rail with
the South, or threaten to do so sufficiently to force the Enemy to leave
his intrenchments to guard them.”

In other words, assuming the Enemy driven back, by minor flanking
movements, or otherwise, upon his intrenched position at Bull Run, or
Manassas, the plan is to turn his right, destroy the Orange and
Alexandria railroad leading South, and the bridge at Bristol, so as to
cut off his supplies. This done, the Enemy–if nothing worse ensues for
him–will be in a “bad box.”

McDowell, however, has no idea that the Enemy will stand still to let
this thing be done. On the contrary, he is well satisfied that
Beauregard will accept battle on some chosen ground between Manassas
Junction and Washington.

On the afternoon of Tuesday, the 16th of July, the advance of McDowell’s
Army commences. That Army is organized into five divisions–four of
which accompany McDowell, while a fifth is left to protect the defensive
works of Washington, on the South bank of the Potomac. This latter, the
Fourth Division, commanded by Brigadier-General Theodore Runyon,
comprises eight unbrigaded New Jersey regiments of (three months, and
three years) volunteers–none of which take part in the ensuing
conflicts-at-arms.

The moving column consists of the First Division, commanded by
Brigadier-General Daniel Tyler, comprising four brigades, respectively
under Brigadier-General R. C. Schenck, and Colonels E. D. Keyes, W. T.
Sherman, and I. B. Richardson; the Second Division, commanded by Colonel
David Hunter, comprising two brigades, under Colonels Andrew Porter and
A. E. Burnside respectively; the Third Division, commanded by Colonel S.
P. Heintzelman, comprising three brigades, under Colonels W. B.
Franklin, O. B. Wilcox, and O. O. Howard, respectively; and the Fifth
Division, commanded by Colonel Dixon S. Miles, comprising two brigades,
under Colonels Lewis Blenker, and Thomas A. Davies, respectively.

Tyler’s Division leads the advance, moving along the Leesburg road to
Vienna, on our right, with orders to cross sharply to its left, upon
Fairfax Court House, the following (Wednesday) morning. Miles’s
Division follows the turnpike road to Annandale, and then moves, by the
Braddock road,–along which Braddock, a century before, had marched his
doomed army to disaster,–upon Fairfax Court House, then known to be
held by Bonham’s Rebel Brigade of South Carolinians. Hunter follows
Miles, to Annandale, and thence advances direct upon Fairfax, by the
turnpike road–McDowell’s idea being to bag Bonham’s Brigade, if
possible, by a simultaneous attack on the front and both flanks. But
the advance is too slow, and the Enemy’s outposts, both there and
elsewhere, have ample opportunity of falling safely back upon their main
position, behind the stream of Bull Run.

[McDowell in his testimony before the “Committee on the Conduct of
the War,” said: “At Fairfax Court House was the South Carolina
Brigade. And I do not suppose anything would have had a greater
cheering effect upon the troops, and perhaps upon the Country, than
the capture of that brigade. And if General Tyler could have got
down there any time in the forenoon instead of in the afternoon,
the capture of that brigade was beyond question. It was about
5,000 or 6,000 men, and Tyler had 12,000, at the same time that we
were pressing on in front. He did not get down there until in the
afternoon; none of us got forward in time.”]

This slowness is due to various causes. There is a pretty general
dread, for example, among our troops, of threatened ambuscades, and
hence the advance is more cautious than it otherwise would be. It is
thought the part of wisdom, as it were, to “feel the way.” The
marching, moreover, is new to our troops. General Scott had checked
McDowell when the latter undertook to handle eight regiments together,
near Washington, by intimating that he was “trying to make a show.”
Thus the very essential knowledge of how to manoeuvre troops in large
bodies, has been withheld from our Union generals, while the volunteer
regiments have either rusted in camp from inaction, or have been denied
the opportunity of acquiring that endurance and hardiness and discipline
which frequent movement of troops confers. Hence, all unused to the
discipline of the march, every moment some one falls out of line to
“pick blackberries, or to get water.” Says McDowell, in afterward
reporting this march: “They would not keep in the ranks, order as much
as you pleased. When they came where water was fresh, they would pour
the old water out of their canteens and fill them with fresh water; they
were not used to denying themselves much.”

Meantime, Heintzelman’s Division is also advancing, by cross-roads, more
to the left and South of the railroad line,–in accordance with
McDowell’s plan, which comprehends not only the bagging of Bonham, but
an immediate subsequent demonstration, by Tyler, upon Centreville and
beyond, while Heintzelman, supported by Hunter and Miles, shall swoop
across Bull Run, at Wolf Run Shoals, some distance below Union Mills,
turn the Enemy’s right, and cut off his Southern line of railroad
communications. Thus, by the evening of Wednesday, the 17th,
Heintzelman is at Sangster’s Station, while Tyler, Miles, and Hunter,
are at Fairfax.

It is a rather rough experience that now befalls the Grand Army of the
Union. All unused, as we have seen, to the fatigues and other hardships
of the march, the raw levies, of which it almost wholly consists, which
started bright and fresh, strong and hopeful, full of the buoyant ardor
of enthusiastic patriotism, on that hot July afternoon, only some thirty
hours back, are now dust-begrimed, footsore, broken down, exhausted by
the scorching sun, hungry, and without food,–for they have wasted the
rations with which they started, and the supply-trains have not yet
arrived. Thus, hungry and physically prostrated, “utterly played out,”
as many of them confess, and demoralized also by straggling and loss of
organization, they bivouac that night in the woods, and dream uneasy
dreams beneath the comfortless stars.

A mile beyond Fairfax Court House, on the Warrenton Turnpike, is
Germantown. It is here that Tyler’s Division has rested, on the night
of the 17th. At 7 o’clock on the morning of Thursday, the 18th, in
obedience to written orders from McDowell, it presses forward, on that
“Pike,” to Centreville, five miles nearer to the Enemy’s position behind
Bull Run–Richardson’s Brigade in advance–and, at 9 o’clock, occupies
it. Here McDowell has intended Tyler to remain, in accordance with the
plan, which he has imparted to him in conversation, and in obedience to
the written instructions to: “Observe well the roads to Bull Run and to
Warrenton. Do not bring on an engagement, but keep up the impression
that we are moving on Manassas,”–this advance, by way of Centreville,
being intended solely as a “demonstration” to mask the real movement,
which, as we have seen, is to be made by the other divisions across Wolf
Run Shoals, a point on Bull Run, some five or six miles below Union
Mills, and some seven miles below Blackburn’s Ford.

Upon the arrival of Richardson’s Brigade, Thursday morning, at
Centreville, it is found that, under cover of the darkness of the
previous night, the Enemy has retreated, in two bodies, upon Bull Run,
the one along the Warrenton Pike, the other (the largest) down the
ridge-road from Centreville to Blackburn’s Ford. Richardson’s Brigade
at once turns down the latter road and halts about a mile beyond
Centreville, at a point convenient to some springs of water. Tyler soon
afterward rides up, and, taking from that brigade two companies of light
Infantry and a squadron of Cavalry, proceeds, with Colonel Richardson,
to reconnoitre the Enemy, finding him in a strong position on the
opposite bank of Bull Run, at Blackburn’s Ford.

While this is going on, McDowell has ridden in a Southerly direction
down to Heintzelman’s Division, at Sangster’s Station, “to make
arrangements to turn the Enemy’s right, and intercept his communications
with the South,” but has found, owing to the narrowness and crookedness
of the roads, and the great distance that must be traversed in making
the necessary detour, that his contemplated movement is too risky to be
ventured. Hence he at once abandons his original plan of turning the
Enemy’s right, and determines on “going around his left, where the
country is more open, and the roads broad and good.”

McDowell now orders a concentration, for that night, of the four
divisions, with two days cooked rations in their haversacks, upon and
about Centreville,–the movement to commence as soon as they shall
receive expected commissariat supplies. But, later on the 18th,–
learning that his advance, under Tyler, has, against orders, become
engaged with the Enemy–he directs the concentration to be made at once.

Let us examine, for a moment, how this premature engagement comes about.
We left Tyler, accompanied by Richardson, with a squadron of Cavalry and
a battalion of light Infantry making a reconnaissance, on Thursday
morning the 18th, toward Blackburn’s Ford. They approach within a mile
of the ford, when they discover a Rebel battery on the farther bank of
Bull Run–so placed as to enfilade the road descending from their own
position of observation down to the ford,–strong Rebel infantry pickets
and skirmishing parties being in front.

Tyler at once orders up his two rifled guns, Ayres’ Battery, and
Richardson’s entire Brigade–and later, Sherman’s Brigade as a reserve.
As soon as they come up,–about noon-he orders the rifled guns into
battery on the crest of the hill, about one mile from, and looking down
upon, the Rebel battery aforesaid, and opens upon the Enemy; giving him
a dozen shells,–one of them making it lively for a body of Rebel
Cavalry which appears between the ford and Manassas.

The Rebel battery responds with half a dozen shots, and then ceases.
Tyler now orders Richardson to advance his brigade and throw out
skirmishers to scour the thick woods which cover the Bull Run bottom-
land. Richardson at once rapidly deploys the battalion of light
Infantry as skirmishers in advance of his brigade, pushes them forward
to the edge of the woods, drives in the skirmishers of the Enemy in fine
style, and supports their further advance into the woods, with the 1st
Massachusetts Regiment.

Meanwhile Tyler, discovering a favorable opening in the woods, “low down
on the bottom of the stream,” for a couple of howitzers in battery,
sends Captain Ayres of the 5th U. S. Artillery, and a detached section
(two 12-pound howitzers) of his battery, with orders to post it himself
on that spot, and sends Brackett’s squadron of the 2d Cavalry to his
support.

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